three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Kate Walbert
user_rating: 
0

A-A Short History of WomenKate Walbert is a critically acclaimed novelist, playwright, and short story writer. Her novel, Our Kind, which follows a group of older country club divorcées, was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award.

The Story: Walbert's latest collection of linked stories explores five generations of one family. In early 20th-century England, family matriarch and suffragette Dorothy Townsend starves herself over the right to vote. Her daughter Evelyn flees to America, where she pursues a scientific career and forgoes marriage and motherhood. A niece (also named Dorothy) finds unhappiness in her suburban life and a future as a war protester. And Liz, a descendant living in present-day Manhattan, ends up anxious and drunk at a children's playdate. Binding these women, perhaps more effectively than their blood connection, is an underlying feeling of discontent and uncertainty as each struggles to understand a woman's place in society.
Simon & Schuster. 239 pages. $24. ISBN: 9781416594987

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"One of the book's accomplishments is that it persuades us that this sentiment holds no less currency in 21st-century America than it did in late Victorian England. ... No manifesto, this is a gorgeously wrought and ultimately wrenching work of art." Leah Hager Cohen

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Simultaneously funny, moving and horrifying. ... A Short History deals with complicated women living in complicated times, and if it is empathetic, it is also disturbing, as all moral conundrums are." Valerie Sayers

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A Short History of Women is necessarily episodic, tapping into emblematic events-V-J Day, a rap session in the 1960s, a play date, a suffragette confrontation. ... Behind Walbert's boundary wall is the fabulous circular construction of what it meant to be a woman in the 20th century or maybe any century." Susan Grimm

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The danger of a multigenerational saga, and particularly one as compressed, elliptical and nonlinear as Walbert's-in which so many characters share the same name!-is keeping the various generations straight. ... [T]he novel's early chapters demand a level of attention some readers may find off-putting." Heller McAlpin

Dallas Morning News 3 of 5 Stars
"[A]n ambitious attempt to tackle a big issue. ... In A Short History of Women, [Walbert] has crafted a novel that is a bit like the original Dorothy: intelligent, admirable and somewhat difficult to like." Shawna Seed

Critical Summary

What are the fundamental rights and responsibilities of a woman? In this newest endeavor, Walbert strives to answer what Victorians commonly called "The Woman Question." Critics praised this work as an intelligent, emotional, and illuminating family account and feminist study. However, despite the elegant writing, they also relayed concerns regarding overall style and structure. Several predicted that the author's use of one name for multiple characters and a crisscrossing, rather than chronological, narrative, would lead readers to throw up their hands in frustration and confusion. In short, reviewers acknowledged A Short History of Women as a thoughtful and complex undertaking, but questioned its broad appeal.